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Common Core + Next Gen Pioneers: Pam Kidder

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Common Core + Next Gen Pioneers: Pam Kidder

Spokane seventh-grade teacher Pam Kidder turns students from populations historically underrepresented in STEM fields into math and science enthusiasts.

Pam Kidder holds a limp balloon in one hand. “What is capacity?” the teacher challenges her seventh-graders.  “The max of something!” a boy calls out. She blows the balloon full. “What systems are in play when I blow up the balloon?” The students, who have been exploring the body’s interactive subsystems, have this down:  respiratory, circulatory, nervous, muscular. “How do they work?” she asks, then pushes: “How do you know that?”

Today, her class at Spokane’s Glover Middle School--one of the most impoverished schools in the state--is charting variable lung capacity. She shows them how to blow into their own balloons and measure three dimensions: normal in-and-out breaths (tidal volume), left-over breaths (expiratory reserve), and big “max” breaths (vital capacity). Working in small groups, they measure each five times to get an average, then graph the results. Soon, they’ll be conducting their own controlled investigations into the relative lung capacities of athletes, musicians, their selves, and their classmates.

The seventh-graders in this small class get extra enrichment through a program called MESA--the nationwide Mathematic Engineering Science Achievement initiative aimed at student populations underrepresented in STEM fields, particularly girls, African-Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Latinos. Kidder works the room mindfully, moving from one student to the next, using differentiated strategies to ensure diverse learners are on task and making sense of what they’re doing. She is patient, thorough. “She offers a lot more help than other teachers,” says one boy. “She really focuses on us.

It’s the kind of intensive instruction Kidder first imagined when she was a student struggling in her own middle-school classroom. The subject was math. The teacher was not helpful. “She sat up front and said ‘Here’s your assignment, go forth and do it.’ There wasn’t much instruction,” says Kidder, who vowed to become the kind of teacher who made sure students--all students--know how to figure out and solve problems.

Today, she is a top practitioner. “She has a phenomenal talent for engaging her students to explore, understand, and enjoy a subject,” says Phyllis Harvey-Buschel, Director of Instructional Support and Curriculum Development for Washington MESA. “She gets them to own their learning.”

Kidder is not only a teacher of students, she is a teacher of teachers. The master’s level National Board Certified Teacher, winner of a 2014 Microsoft Innovative Teacher Award, provides professional development at her school, where she has served as coach, mentor teacher, and school science coordinator. She also works for the district as a secondary science teacher on special assignment, aligning middle-school curriculum with rigorous new Next Generation Science Standards, and preparing educators to implement those changes. “We’re focusing on science and engineering, asking ‘Where are our holes and gaps?” says Kidder.

She is excited to see how the challenging new standards, which encourage project-based learning, big-think inquiry, and scientific argumentation, will transform education. “The standards really get at that mindset of making sense of the world around us. We question something, then create an investigation around it, and prove it.” The approach brings real-world tactile, kinetic, and visual learning to the classroom–learning that pulls in diverse learners who often fail with old-school grill-and-drill techniques. “Engagement is higher when students can apply what they are learning. They begin to understand WHY we are learning this,” says Kidder.  

Kidder, who has a bachelor's in chemistry and a master's in community agency counseling, was instrumental in bringing MESA to Glover, along with her 8th grade partner Cathy Beadle.  "They were MESA teachers before it was MESA," says Joanna Moznette, Spokane MESA Center DIrector.  

The MESA program, which serves more than 3,000 K-12 students in Washington state, offers enrichments beyond regular curricula. Diverse STEM industry speakers are class regulars and serve as mentors and role models. There are field trips to colleges and universities and business sites, after-hours labs and weekend academies, as well as counseling in college planning and scholarship assistance.  “My job is to ensure those underrepresented groups of students have experiences above and beyond the experiences of regular seventh-grade students,” says Kidder.

Her students take on real-world challenges and vie for awards in MESA student competitions. For one challenge, students had to construct a functional prosthetic arm that can toss bean bags with accuracy or tighten bolts onto a screw. Their budget: $40. “It’s a design efficiency test,” says Kidder, who helped develop the challenge.

Her seventh-grade MESA students “went crazy” on a challenge called “Apps with a Purpose.” One group built a medical app that looked at symptoms and best ways to diagnose and treat them. Another built a safe-walk app, going to the sheriff’s website and tracking sexual predator locations, then charting a course from school to home that avoided them. There was a hipster app for locating cool fashions and another app that connected common allergies with foods that might trigger them. “We thought it would be really helpful for families and children so they’d know what not to eat,” says a member of the allergy-app team.

Working together, brainstorming, and challenging each other’s ideas is a highlight for Kidder’s students.  It’s collective work that leads to scientific “a-ha’s,” says their attentive teacher. “They become the best teachers of each other. And that’s what happens in the real world. We look at someone else’s design and say, ‘I could change that. I could make that better.’”

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